MONTREAL – A Canadian rower says she has become the first North American to complete a solo journey across the churning seas of the treacherous North Atlantic.
Mylene Paquette reached the shores of France on Tuesday after a 5,000-kilometre voyage from Halifax, a four-month odyssey that saw her overcome the volatility of nearly a dozen storms, the power of 12-metre-high swells and the shock of capsizing 10 times.
Paquette, however, still didn’t find a way to conquer her fear of water.
“I’m scared in the pool and in a big bath,” the Montrealer told reporters on a conference call shortly after landing in the French port city of Lorient.
“I don’t really understand what I’m scared of. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too much ‘Jaws’ when I was younger?”
Paquette, 35, said her solo rowing trip was just the 13th successful mission of its kind across the North Atlantic out of about 35 attempts. Three solo rowers were lost at sea during those unsuccessful tries, according to Oceanrowing.com, which compiles statistics on such journeys.
U.S. citizen Tori Murden’s solo rowing trip across the Atlantic in 1999, from the Canary Islands west to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, has been recognized as the first by a North American woman.
But the more-northern expanse of the Atlantic is much more difficult to navigate than its sections further to the south, Paquette said.
“It’s like Everest,” she said of crossing North Atlantic waters, before she compared the ocean’s southern routes to the much-more accessible Mount Kilimanjaro.
Paquette, however, said her own accomplishment should not take anything away from the impressive feat by Murden, whom she called a “hero.”
The primary objectives of her 129-day journey, which began July 6, were to raise awareness about the importance of ocean ecosystems and encourage people to protect the environment. She chronicled the trip online and used a blog to share facts about oceans.
Interactions with sea creatures became a big part of her journey and Paquette wrote how she spotted lots of wildlife along on the way, including dolphins, birds, squid, jellyfish and a pod of pilot whales that followed her craft for more than a week.
She also brought back tales of terrifying moments.
Paquette said her 7.3-metre boat, named the Hermel, capsized 10 times during storms that generated towering waves, though her specially designed vehicle righted itself each time. She suffered only minor injuries as she bounced about inside the cabin, which kept her from falling into the sea.
“It was quite impressive, like a big building in front of me,” she said of one wave, estimated at 12 metres, that tossed her rowboat.
One of those unexpected rolls, however, proved costly for Paquette.
She lost her satellite phone, an antenna and a sea anchor among other items.
But, unexpectedly, the angry sea that stole from Paquette also gave the rower something back.
A few days after losing the gear, she spotted England’s 345-metre-long Queen Mary 2.
The massive passenger ship changed course to meet up with Paquette and its crew dropped her fresh supplies, including chocolate, fruit, tea, an anchor and a satellite phone.
She recalled how a horde of passengers gathered on the deck as she picked up the gifts. They cheered her on, she said, and told her not to give up.
Aside from sore elbows, knees and back, Paquette also battled psychological challenges such as loneliness and the urge, at times, to turn back.
She found herself ready to give up about two months into the voyage, as she approached the dangerous seas near the shoals off Newfoundland.
Paquette asked the meteorological expert who was guiding her throughout the mission to chart a route to shore, but he told her the currents were too strong and that she had no choice but to continue.
“I was really scared and I was trying to go south,” said Paquette, who wanted to flag down the next cargo ship and ask to be taken home.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what a mistake I’ve made in my life.’ “
Along the way, Paquette had a friend and fellow ocean rower to help with encouragement.
During the first part of her journey, Paquette stayed in touch via satellite phone with English adventurer Sarah Outen, who was busy with her own challenge: crossing the North Pacific.
Outen, who is in the middle of a journey to circle the globe by rowboat, kayak and bicycle, said that she shared photos and spoke with Paquette for about an hour once a week while the two of them rowed across different oceans.
“It really felt like we were rowing together,” she said in a phone interview from England of their high-seas solidarity. “I guess we’re sisters of ocean rowing.”
Outen, who plans to attempt to row the North Atlantic next year, said northern ocean routes are unforgiving.
“Anything in the north is big and rough, unpredictable, cold,” said Outen, who added that the region also lacks the helpful push of the east-to-west trade winds in the south, if one is heading in the opposite direction.
“She’s done remarkably well to get across… I’m really proud of her.”
Paquette was greeted Tuesday by loved ones who travelled to France to watch her complete the voyage. She also hopes to write a book about her mission.
She even earned praise from Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who called Paquette’s accomplishment “truly exceptional.”
“This young woman showed courage, determination and incredible endurance,” Marois said in a statement.
“She is an example for all because when we focus on objectives and challenges, with the force of perseverance, we can realize them.”
This is the second time Paquette has rowed across the Atlantic — the first was in 2010 as part of a six-person crew that travelled from Barbados to Morocco.
But despite so much time spent on the high seas, she says she has failed to overcome her fear of falling in the water.
Paquette told The Canadian Press in a brief interview later Tuesday she was even afraid of jumping the watery gap between the Hermel and a boat that towed her to shore after she completed the expedition.
She only entered the water three times during the trip — all three plunges came in the span of an hour as she scraped barnacles from the hull and repaired the rudder.
Paquette even wrote about her fears in a Oct. 16 blog entry that detailed those dives.
“I’m horrified by the water,” she wrote in the posting.
“Before diving into the ocean, I stuck my head in (the water), wearing goggles, in order to see if something was following me…
“In my imagination, ravenous oceanic creatures capable of finishing me off had nothing better to do (than) to wait for the buffet to be served!”
That phobia of being underwater, she added in the interview, is what propelled her to take on such a mission.
Paquette, who worked at a children’s hospital in Montreal several years ago, said she was impressed by how one little girl mustered the courage to battle her one of own fears: serious illness.
“So this is why I got into that project, even if I’m scared of water — and I’m still scared today.”